Author: Clara Panella Gómez

When in 2014 the then Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallström, spearheaded the adoption of a Feminist Foreign Policy, she probably didn’t know the repercussions this decision would have. In the years that followed, other EU Member States, such as France, Spain and Luxembourg either adopted or pledged to adopt a Feminist Foreign Policy, radically changing their approach to foreign affairs. The debate naturally reached Brussels, where the idea of including a feminist perspective in the external action of the EU has been gaining political traction.

Feminist Foreign Policy?

Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) is still not an easy-to-grasp concept, as it does not have a widely accepted definition. The International Center for Research on Women describes it as “the policy of a state that defines its interaction with other states, as well as with movements and other non-state actors, in a manner that prioritizes peace, gender equality and environmental integrity, that enshrines the human rights of all”.

Feminists argue this is an oversimplification of its meaning, as its goal goes beyond the promotion of gender equality. For the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, it is a multidisciplinary framework that puts the wellbeing of marginalised individuals, beyond women, at the centre of all actions. The goal is to ultimately change the power structures and norms by addressing the root causes of the existing inequalities, not just in gender, but also in its intersection with other dimensions such as race, class, or sexual orientation.

Sweden is one of the few countries that has adopted a Feminist Foreign Policy, and it is considered one of the best frameworks to this day. So much so, that many argue its time for the EU to consider it. The adoption of FFP in the EU makes sense for a supranational organisation that has long pushed for gender equality. However, the 27 might not be ready for it yet.

First do your homework

When Sweden adopted FFP, the country already had a long track record of advancing feminism domestically. The Swedish Gender Equality Act was introduced as early as in 1979, putting “women’s issues” on the public and political agenda. Years later the government adopted gender mainstreaming as a working method. With its ample experience in advancing gender rights, it is not surprising that the Swedish government and its society were ready to commit to a Feminist Foreign Policy in 2014.

Since then, other countries have followed suit. Spain, for example, has made ending discrimination and inequality one of its priorities, and is putting forward ambitious policies in the fields of gender-based violence and rights for the trans community. However, the debates taking place within Spanish society are alien to other EU Member States, ending in extreme disparities among the 27. The latest Gender Equality Index Report demonstrates that while Sweden leads the index with a score of 83.9 out of 100, Greece is at the bottom of the chart with 52.5. Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Poland are not far behind. Ultimately, to be able to export our European values elsewhere, we need to first make sure we are upholding them at home, and gender equality is still in our to-do list.

In November 2020, two MEPs from the Greens/EFA political group, Hannah Neumann and Ernest Urtasun, put forward a report calling for the EU to adopt a Feminist Foreign Policy. A majority voted in favour of it. However, since the Parliament does not have the authority to legislate on this matter, and the report was non-binding, the debate has stalled. This comprehensive report analysed the flaws of the EU in regard to gender mainstreaming, highlighting the different interpretations of gender and gender equality as one of the main challenges for the EU in adopting a Feminist Foreign Policy. According to the authors, The EU’s definition of gender is still too narrow, as it considers that gender equality is solely about women. Another reason is the scepticism about the concept of feminism itself, which is still perceived as a radical view with a highly negative connotation in parts of Southern and Central-Eastern Europe. Suggesting a way forward, the report argues that “there has never been a more opportune time to implement an EU Feminist Foreign Policy”. And timing is precisely the second reason for which the EU is not yet ready to commit to FFP.

The timing is not ideal anymore

While the timing was right for the EU to adopt a Feminist Foreign Policy in 2020, that window of opportunity was shut when Russia invaded Ukraine. As defined in the report approved by the EU Parliament, one of the priorities of FFP is to “reverse the militarisation of the EU external action and prioritise human security” and “end the export of arms manufactured in Europe and by companies registered in Europe”. With a war on the EU’s borders, and the world shifting from a rules-based order to a power-based one, the Union has done the opposite of reversing militarisation.

The return to power politics was reflected in the Strategic Compass of the EU, adopted in March 2022, following the start of the war in Ukraine. This roadmap for the EU provides a framework for military boosting and investment in the European defence industry. It also sets the basis for a “Rapid Reaction Force”, which some consider an embryo of an EU army.

The Strategic Compass, adopted in this very volatile geopolitical situation, proves that if there was a possibility for the EU to be adopting a Feminist Foreign Policy, the opportunity is gone for now. However, not all hope is lost.

Towards EU Feminist Foreign Policy

While the current geopolitical environment is not ideal, there is still much the EU can do. Focusing on improving gender equality in its Member States will certainly lead to increased unity on this issue and will enable the EU to take a common stance in its foreign action. It is quintessential to reduce the disparities amongst Member States if a “Union of Equality”, one of the priorities of Von der Leyen’s Commission, is to be achieved. In addition, the EEAS can also play a decisive role in promoting gender equality through the EU’s foreign action. Its Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in External Action 2021–2025 (GAP III), adopted in 2020, is an ambitious proposal to advance gender issues. Not only does it promote women’s leadership and participation, it also pushes for gender mainstreaming and an intersectional approach that takes into account all dimensions of discrimination. If the EU ensures these strategies are fully implemented, we will be one step closer to adopting a Feminist Foreign Policy.